Why I care about the Calvinism verses Arminianism debate


I ask lots of people their stance on this issue. When I talk about it I usually ask how much they know about Incompatibalism vs Compatibalism (ie a disagreement about whether determinism (usually a more scientific version) and free will are compatible). It seems that there are lots of people in the philosophical world that have moved the discussion forward regarding free will but people in the theological world haven’t caugt up. Usually they would be opposed to the idea of “catching up” as well. So when I talk lots of people ask me the question “Why do you care?”

Here is what I think is my response:

Regarding why I care. I think its a mixture. I do find the CvA debate interesting from an intellectual stand point just because it seems so clear that something is dodgey. Every Calvinist or Arminian I’ve met or read seems to assume incompatibalism without any argument or realisation that they are doing so. So I think this is significant but don’t really exactly know how. It might turn out that that they actually agree with each other for example.

From a more personal level I think there is a “middle ground” that shows a much clearer gospel message to our generation. Whilst I’m more sympathetic to arminianism, I find their solution to the problem of pain (pain is caused by our free will) problematic. 1) There is plenty of suffering that isn’t caused by individuals (tsunamis) and then you end up with a wierd view that our sin causes earthquakes. and 2) many of the pain and suffering that people caused is usually part of a chain of events. In relationships with some of the nastiest guys I know, you can usually see a particular girl that messed them up, and then see someone before that, that messed her up. Rather then “Free Will” I tend to see the world as a series of broken people that can do nothing but break other people, because out of brokenness comes more brokenness.

Telling broken people they need to fix themselves, I think is like telling a depressed person they “just need to be happy”. Instead they need to be “rescued” out of their brokenness. So this leads me to a much more calvinistic way of explaining the gospel.

Alternatively you might argue that 1) isn’t wierd and 2) just means you need to chase back the first cause. Well if you go down this road you’ll probably have to chase it back to the fall. (Whilst I find it wierd that me stealing something now, could cause an earthquake in Japan, I don’t think its wierd to suggest that when sin first entered the world, the whole world was changed in some almost supernatural way). In this case you end up with original sin and you basically have calvinism. You could still possibly argue about whether eve had free will but I think that moves the argument into the very theoretical. For all intents and purposes the people I encounter arn’t free.

And yet… I still think calvinism is wrong. I still think the smug manner in which calvinists say free will is just an illusion is wrong. I think we do have a very real free will that is able to choose Jesus… I don’t think that very real free will is a complete naive libertarian free will but neither do I think the whole “We have free will, but God dictates our will and we then act freely on that” is satisfactory.

What we’re about – monetisation


How different business models interact with each other

How different business models interact with each other

Introduction

Recently activity regarding Drupal Church Distributions have increased. Open Church has released a demo and its pretty good at fulfilling the basic features offered by the smaller Church “Software as a Service” (SaaS) companies. They have in fact beat us to the initial stage that we were aiming to have done by now but he’s done it better then we could have anyway. Particularly the clean theme seems to fit with most of the user experience features that are in fashion at the moment. For example the nice use of a front page slide show. As things are starting to happen I thought it would be appropriate to write a post detailing who we are and where we stand when it comes to difficult topics such as ‘ownership’ and money as it definitely looks like Open Church is a financial venture rather then purely out of passion like the old Drupal for Churches people were.

Who we are?

The Tribes Online (TTO) consists of 3 individuals. I’m Jamie Abrahams and I’m currently studying for a Business Masters of Enterprise researching into the viability of TTO as a financial venture and the impact of social networking on people over 65 in the church. Rob Mumford is finishing a Computer Science degree also at the University of Manchester whilst Andrew Belcher dropped out of physics at Oxford and is currently a freelance web developer who has worked with many Christian organisations. Our plan is to look for a fourth person to take a role of “creative director”. Whilst we were all still at school we started a small church discussion forum for our youth group, there were many people that helped out with setting it up and it spiraled into quite a large website with 50 new members a week at its peak. We learnt quite a bit about online communities and community management throughout that time. We also learnt about the benefits and pitfalls of using the Internet in a ministerial context. Whilst people on the outskirts of the community found it easy to get involved, fights had to be squashed very quickly on the Internet. We worked with phpbb and started discovering that we needed the forum to influence a front page to get information out to people more easily. We had three specific goals:

1) Our prayer forum was by far the most prominent and successful of the forums, being used almost 24/7 and we wanted to quickly graphically represent what people were praying about

2) Our youth group was spread across two centres of worship that were connected but also had distinct communities. There were also multiple adult congregations and some younger youth groups. We wanted to build a multi – site environment where groups could maintain their own look, feeling and branding whilst sharing some resources. We wanted local forums combined with “Global forums”

3) We found that in the forums conversation dynamically spiraled into something more significant. Events would get planned in the forums and some theological discussions turned into collaborative articles. We wanted some way of taking content in the forum and dynamically displaying in other places such as Sermon Libraries, Resource Libraries, Calenders, etc.

We are now a bit older. Facebook now dominates the world and forums are not as significant as they used to be. We think that Drupal is the way to go instead of a CMS based on phpbb but we still feel that the way that the Internet brought people together was key. It was so awesome being about to see what your real community was actually praying about. It was awesome to see the friendship that started through the “virtual reality”. As we moved it to the adult congregation we found that forums were actually valuable organisational tools, far superior to the e-mails they tended to use and the ideas spread from there.

What is the Tribes Online planning?

First and foremost we care about building the global church. Looking at innovations in the secular and corporate world such as Microsoft Sharepoint, Facebook and Basecamp we think that the church will truly benefit from applying these concepts to a church world. The particular aspect of the Internet we want to focus on is the way it can connect real human beings to other real human beings and the way information can spread through communities organically. There are many churches that are doing things fantastically, especially in America. However, they tend to be churches with lots of money and resources to build tools that then don’t benefit other churches. For example we really like the resource library of http://www.desiringgod.org. We think it would be awesome if even smaller churches could easily start building their own libaries of resources from sermons to articles.

We’re still working on exactly which ideas we want to run with. Our first project is a prayer wall that is artistically designed that takes a random selection of posts from a church’s specific community. We then want to build sermon libraries with the ability for questions to be asked to the preacher. We want to go further and build church administration systems that allow people to have a single sign on to their site and whilst they get notifications they can also upload sermon notes or check their rota.

Because we want to build the whole church it has to based on Open Source software. But we want to go further. We really want to investigate building some kind of wiki and tool that can harvest ideas and publish research. There are lots of churches that have experimented with Facebook and Twitter for example, we want to create a resource so ideas can be submitted, played with and case studies studied. This means that the ideas as well as the code can travel and build the global church. I think this will be more important as the church grows in Africa, South America and China.

How and why are we planning on making money?

There are 3 business models that we hope to combine. We hope to give the software away to technical Christians with the time on the hands to get involved in testing and development. Whilst charging more significant amounts of money for consultancy fees we want to provide a Software as a Service model for small churches. Finally there is a possibility of producing books and resources (available for free online such as desiring God but also in shops). They will have less access to customisation but the innovations harvested from contributions and the consultancy will filter back down to them. We’re heavily relying on Acquia’s business model with Drupal Gardens where I think they do a fantastic Job. We think we need to charge some money for a few reasons:

1) This allows us to spend the time developing the free software

2) Churches tend to take free stuff less seriously. One charity I know who really wanted to work for churches for very little suggested a business model where he’d charge a church or charity appropriately large consultancy fees but then make a personal donation back to the church! The reality is that if we are right about social technologies being key we need churches actually using it, not just the tools existing.

3) Marketing and training churches is important, this takes individuals time and so will need money. This gets churches using it and knowing how they use it. I think we want to fit around a similar model to how “Cell churches” spread or even Alpha courses.

Licensing and Sharing Code – Working with the Competitors

Obviously as we’re working with Drupal everything with be under the GPL. This means all the code is shared. Ideally I’d like some components using the AGPL license so even Software as a Service companies such as us would have to share their code. We are thinking of working with CiviCRM to encourage this. This means we’ve thought about two possible ways of providing a SaaS to churches. Acquia provide fantastic hosting either using Amazon’s Cloud network or Drupal Gardens or we could build our whole system using Aegir. The advantage of Aegir is that it means our entire infrastructure will be open sourced, not just Drupal but even how we will manage to thousands of potential sites together. The scary and awesome thing about this is that it means that future competitors could compete with us using literally every aspect of our software! (Whilst Acquia provides the advantage of being much more stable then anything we’d make alone).

In the UK there is one large Church SaaS provider called Church Insight. They are so large they will most likely always remain a competitor. However, the smaller companies (I know of 3) have features that could be easily duplicated on Drupal. This means that whilst we will compete initially, if The Tribes Online takes off we can collaborate with our competitors rather then swallow them up. Whilst it makes the business venture more risky I strongly believe that giving the Church this choice eventually benefits the church more. It means innovations even across companies will be shared and will allow church website companies to remain small and fast moving.

Why have we not approached our competitors?

Up until now we’ve kept a low profile. We’ve been trying to build a church install profile or work with Drupal for Churches but we have certainly said nothing to our future competitors. The main reason is that we are all very young and idealistic. I have been working on this idea for about 6 years and plan to take it as far as it can go. But any good business people reading this will probably know that Entrepreneurs who focus on ideas and not customers get eaten up. So we want to actually build something before we speak to people so not to waste their time whilst working on a more sustainable business model. We do have an Atrium site left up with ideas building up and we’d be happy to work with anyone but think its likely most people will want to leave us alone until we have something of substance.

If people want to steal our ideas or work with them, that is fine however!

The introduction of Open Church.

Our original intention was to duplicate the features of the smaller Church SaaS companies in the UK. Open Church has done this already and so now we want to divert our attention to building that genuinely unique tools. However I think its likely that we’ll just continue flying under the radar. I also think that the UK and the US market are sufficiently different that we wouldn’t really be competing for customers anyway. However if you want access to our Atrium site and there are some ideas you like that you’d want to work on with us that would be awesome!

Do we want a product?

Basically because we care about the church and not the company I don’t care if some other Drupal people make us irrelevant. So far most people (including Open Church) focus on the site building side of things and we really think its the social side of things that is key to building up the church and so we don’t think we’re irrelevant yet. However, we’re all young so there are plenty of other things we can do if someone else comes along and does a better Job then us without needing us!

Couple of Features we’re looking for:

1) Building simple church website – Open Church achieves

2) Provide a variety of themes that work with the modules used. (Major selling point for UK competitors)

3) More Social Technology. How does feature X connect a human being with another human being? How does it build up the local church?

4) Back – End Administration: Contacts, Rotas, Projector Slides, Sermons, Bulletin generators, Room management, Task management, etc

5) Build a wiki – A resource where ideas can be discussed, researched and explained.

The Pangaea Prayer and Meditative Space – First thoughts


Last week on the 29th of January our University of Manchester Student’s Union put on a huge end of exams party. The tickets sold out 2 weeks in advance as across 18 different rooms throughout the SU including the Academies over 4000 students partied to an eclectic mix of rooms and genres until 4 in the morning. This is a time of worship, it’s a place where people worship hedonism, academic success, sex, alchohol and companionship. The event has such an awesome atmosphere and this year some Christians alongside the Christian Union worshipped with the rest of our colleagues.

In the Foyer of the student union we create the Pangaea Prayer and Meditative Space. It had to be neutral and open to people of all backgrounds and so we built activities that Christians could use for their own prayer and meditation, stuff you might get in a 24/7 prayer room but the activities could be used by anyone however they wanted. We had 6 fantastic Christian DJs playing sets of meditative and euphoric chill out electronic music. We had an artist decorate the room with posters and a painter in the front whilst people could join in painting with poster paints. On the walls we had a Prayer and Reflection wall where people could jot things down and a map of the world with events that could be prayed into. Finally at the corner we had an absolutely beautifully set up prayer room with a variety of activities for people to sit down and pray.

The night went down really well. Some people were originally hostile to the idea of it at a very secular event but so far the reception has been good. The music was great and the atmosphere was chilled out and relaxed, helped out by the cushions, doughnuts and free tea. However, what was interesting was that by far the most successful aspect of the prayer room was the one thing that was much less secular. We gave out tokens for people to receive prayer, dream interpretation, healing and future telling (prophecy). The people involved with this regularly do things like this at events such as Glastonbury or the mind/body/soul convention in Manchester however these events, though secular, are much more “spiritual”. I didn’t know how the students of Manchester who are just on a night out would take this. But we saw for about 4 or 5 hours a constant stream of students being prayed for. They seemed to love it and many people were bringing their friends.

We’re hoping to have a debrief in the future including some pictures of the event and some of the stories of how the praying went. The room certainly encouraged lots of interesting conversations throughout the night and there are a few stories from the prayers. We hope to be back in Pangaea for the summer which is even longer lasting from 8 until 6 in the morning. Winter Pangaea saw a great reception from non-christians but the prayer room section itself was mainly used by the people helping to organise the room. For this summer I’d really like to push to get more Christians involved, I have a goal to find at least 40 christians who are not organising this event using the prayer room for at least 15 minutes.

One thing I’ve loved most about clubbing in Manchester is how awesome it is to worship God outside of the church. In a club you can raise your hand, shout out praises to God or even speak in tongues and you’re just part of it all. In a club the inspiration to praise God surrounded by what happens in clubs is huge. Finally many Christians find the world of non-Christians terrifying. They think that most people are against them, I’d like to see Christians coming to this prayer room and realising that actually that as long as they approach non-Christians with love they can quite easily express their faith out in the open. With a larger group of christians I’d really like to see prayer spill out into the other rooms.

When the Holy Spirit fell on the disciples during Pentecost the first thing they did was pour out and worship God in the Streets. We’re keeping that going!

Connecting people to people


This was posted here: http://groups.drupal.org/node/98199

A friend of mine linked me to this article:

http://www.goodmanson.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/11/websitewisdom.pdf
where the website is http://www.goodmanson.com/church-technology/the-truth-about-church-websites-and-effective-online-outreach/

One thing that is interesting there, is that on the second page near the top of the second column, 39 percent of people said that the feature they wanted most from their church website (which I’m assuming they don’t already have) is “connect with other members”. Personally this is one of my pet peeves about church websites. They all seem to be “online brochures”. Either boring understated brochures such as church in the UK or really big flashy brochures as they tend to be in the US but brochures non-the less*. I’ve seen lots of good use of advanced web technologies to connect people with the paster/leader/vicar such as sermons, blogs etc. But very little for new comers to a site to connect with actual people in the church.

The article talked about people requesting the ability to pray online. When I set up a youth website the online prayer board became the most successful aspect of our site. We had a fairly large group of 14-18s (about 90 ish) and at that age it was invaluable having an ability to post anonymous prayers (though moderated) at any point in the week, exactly when you needed it. Around exam time there were plenty of posts at early hours of the morning! (though perhaps advice on the uselessness of late night-day-before-exam revision was needed :S). This fits with a feature that actually connects people with other people in the church (rather then just the pastor, or just a brochure).

We’re planning on creating a drupal church distribution / work with install profiles (yes I know, another one! I’ve heard of plenty of other attempts). We’d be aiming it at the UK market which I feel will need to be less flashy then then the idea outlined by Geeks and God. Currently working with a couple of churches including one church that wants to find novel ways of connecting a congregation with its overseas mission partners.

However one worry I have despite this research is that of control. The Church is famously lead by people who like control over stuff generally. It’s also famously very involved with its own image. Many times I’ve watched American comedy programs where they show a clichéd Christian anti-abortionist teenage that might also be head of an abstinence society in their school. They then show this person having sex to point out some kind of hypocrisy. Whilst this is sometimes similar to the Pharisee and teachers of the law Jesus attacked, the reality is that this shouldn’t be shocking. Christians are Christians because they KNOW they are sinners! So it shouldn’t be shocking when Christians are found sinning as that is what they are. If anything those that feel they don’t need Jesus ought to be morally superior to us admitted sinners! (I realise this is an over simplification 😛 CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity deals with this topic better then me.

However, the reality is if a church leader allows new comers and people outside the church to connect with the human beings inside the church. Not only will they have less control, they are allowing people to connect with a sea of sinners. Will this be a problem? Will it be embarrassing to come across a church prayer wall and find the inevitable prayers of those addicted to internet pornography and trying to over come it?

So there are a couple of questions. Will people find it difficult allowing the lack of control that comes from connecting people to other real people?

If people do find this difficult is this something that we’d want to fight (As in fight for people to connect to real people despite the problems of control)?

I post it here because if there is ever a piece of software that will successfully connect humans with humans on a smaller scale, I feel like Drupal is the only way, much more then bespoke systems (even if they are open-source)

*I’m British and I don’t mean that as an attack. I quite like boring understated stuff. I heard an interested documentary about the American view of the famous British show Countdown. They couldn’t understand why we’d have a actual personal Carol Volderman literally picking the numbers on some card rather then computerising everything.

Consider the source


So here is my take on a classic apologetic. I’m answering the emotional question, “Are christians horrible for thinking I will go to hell?”

So there is a fantastic film called the Devil’s Advocate. In this film Keanu Reeves is courted by a succesful Law firm owner played by Al Pacino. Now if you haven’t watched this film I suggest you skip to the next paragraph because I will spoil the film a little here (the rest is safe). However it turns out that Al Pacino is the devil and has been using Keanu Reeves to create the antichrist and finally defeat God. In one of the final scenes, Keanu Reeves challenges the devil with “You know that you are going to lose right?” to which Al blows it off as “Enemy propaganda! Have you considered the source?”

This is my issue with the question of heaven and hell. Everyone seems to think that Heaven is a place filled with “Good” stuff and that Hell is a place filled with “Bad” stuff. Now good things should happen to good people and bad things to bad people so therefore heaven should happen to “Good” people, I’m a generally good person so I should go to heaven. But this is the thing that confuses me, people very rarely consider the source of this information. Why does everyone think that the Christian heaven is a good place? The Christian God thinks that his heaven is good? But what if you reject the Christian God? Surely you’d reject his heaven too?

Philosophically this can seem like a difficult thing to picture. Heaven is understood as a good place because its kind of philosophically defined as just a “place of eternal goodness”. However, one example I quite enjoy is regarding sex. In the Book of Matthew, Jesus essentially says that there will be no sex in heaven. Now many people struggle with the idea that Christianity says you should wait until marriage until sex and that you should have sex with only this one person. I’ve heard people tell me that Christianity should modernise. Now if you can’t handle sex with only one person (where there is evidence and reasons that suggest that could actually give you better earthly sex anyway so you aren’t missing out on much). How on earth would you be able to cope with a sexless eternity in heaven?!?

Now I can tell you why I do it. Whilst I think there are good reasons to suggest that Sex with one person who you love for ever on earth that gets better and better as you understand each other better, are powerful. They are by no means conclusive. The reality is that I believe that the God who created sex will be able to give me good advice on how to deal with it. In essence, I trust him. Some people big this up as “faith” which they see as some crazy metaphysical religious thing which I have or don’t. It’s just a case where it makes sense, given what I know of God, to trust him. Then at the same time my experiences tend to confirm that actually his advice was good advice anyway. Similarly when I think about heaven and its lack of sex. I might think about all the awesomeness of sex on earth (its possible to appreciate to some degree the awesomeness of sex without experiencing it directly, women are awesome). This fills me with more hope, the God who made THAT has said there is something coming without it that is going to be BETTER! See for a Christian, the reality is that we don’t have concrete things in heaven to enjoy. We’re not going there for sex or riches. We only have one promise, that it will be with Jesus. A fantastic quote by Dinesh D’Souza; “People get confused that they think that the Gift from God is salvation but actually Christians believe that the Gift of God is salvation”. The thing christians “get” in heaven is God. Its Jesus himself that we long for.

But what if you don’t trust God? What if you don’t think Jesus is worthy. Well then all my “evidence” that God’s way of doing sex is best could probably be explained in other ways. Or maybe they are pipe dreams (you might say “Jamie, its unreasonable to expect the first will be ‘the one'”). The reality is if you don’t trust God you probably won’t trust what he says and won’t want to do what he says. (This is the converse of Jesus saying that those who love God will do what he says). The reality is that you’ll only think Hell is bad if you trust him in the first place. So we have a wierd situation here.

If you are angry that God is sending you to hell. Then you think Hell is a bad place. You can only think Hell is a bad place if you trust God. If you trust God you won’t go to hell (pretty much*) so you won’t have a reason to be angry. So you are no longer angry that God is sending you to hell. (Cause he isn’t).

Or

You are angry that God is sending you to hell. He’s sending you to hell because you don’t trust him. Because you don’t trust him, you don’t trust that Hell is a bad place. So he isn’t sending you to a bad place. So there is no reason to be angry with him.

In my understanding the issue has been answered. However there are a couple of niggling questions.

Do you as a Christian really think Hell is Good?

Well obviously not. I think that Hell is a very bad place indeed and Heaven will be awesome. I think everyone really wants to be in heaven. But the reason why I think this is because everyone else is actually wrong. God exists, his name is Jesus and Jesus is worthy. Because God is actually good and what everyone needs him, heaven is actually good because its with him. Conversely Hell is a place of extreme suffering by virtue of God not really being there. So I think Heaven is good, I think Hell is bad and I think you’re heading there. The point I’m making is that there is no good reason to be angry at me. Either I’m wrong, in which case I’m wrong anyway and maybe you should feel sorry for me, or I’m right in which case it appears you agree with me so you’re not heading to Hell after all.

But you just said?

Right. This is confusing. Why would anyone in their right mind go for something that is bad? Well the way I like to think of it, is a kind of extreme anorexia. You imagine a person who is very skinny, they are starving to the point that their hair is falling out. You go up to them and present them good food. In this thought-experiment the food is exactly the right kind of food. Its not going to make them throw up even though they are hungry, its going to nourish them and it looks awesome. Most people who are sane would eat it. However, it is possible to imagine someone who will still not eat this food. They are anorexic. They are refusing food even though rationally they ought to eat it, they want to eat it and it would end their suffering. Now to a normal person anorexic people seem totally crazy, there seems to be literally no reason why they wouldn’t eat. In reality there are doctors and counsellors who can usually get to the bottom of the problem. These people will find reasons that have brought the anorexia on (they hate themselves, they think they look fat, etc). However, in this picture we have someone where all the best doctors have tried to find the reasons and they can’t. Literally everything has been done but they still won’t eat.

Now, the debate in the philosophy of religion and to a lesser extent in theology is whether this person could exist. I think it is possible for most people to imagine because most people aren’t doctors and can imagine someone who is this crazy. BUT there might be some niggling faith that eventually with enough doctors and time this person will come to eat. This is what philosophers argue. There are some who think that people will eventually know God is good and still for some reason reject him (more traditional christianity) and there are some people who believe that eventually all humans beings will eventually realise that God is good and then they will be in heaven (universalist christians).

So what does Jamie think?

Well, I tend towards the traditional Christian. The issue I have with the universalist approach is twofold. Firstly it is incredibly arrogant. When Christopher Hitchens writes a book entitled “God is not Great” and emphasises again and again that not only does he not believe God exists but believes it would be bad if he did. This universalist Christians has to say that not only is Hitchenswrong about facts (He does exist) but you’re making no sense about your feelings towards him, that Hitchens actually does want to grovel before a higher being, he’s just lying to himself. Now I have no problem with this arrogance, except that in my experience the kind of person who is a universalist tends to be the kind of person who scorns arrogance in favour of being “accepting”. Their apparantly accepting view is actually much more strongly arrogant. However the issue I have is that it seems like blind faith to believe that eventually everyone will be solved even in my anorexic example. I don’t think it’s impossible to think of a person where no one can find the reason to the point where there isn’t any. I think in order for me to have the faith that everyone will eventually think like that, the philosophical arguments aren’t convincing, I think there would have to be an external source of certainty such as a pretty good biblical argument that I have yet to have seen.

What about all the pitch forks, fire and brimstone

I suppose I should mention that I’m putting forward a particular view on the theology of hell. I don’t think its a place of literal fire, I don’t think there will be demons with pitch forks. I don’t think Dante’s Inferno is an accurate picture of the afterlife. I think these are medieval stories to scare people into conformity. Probably this view needs to be justified (there were loads of good talks about it at New Wine!). However I’m not going to do that here.

*Pretty Much? and I’m still angry

Yeah, it doesn’t seem that just trusting God’s attitude towards heaven and hell is correct is another to warrant salvation. So there is a little more to it, however if you trust God’s attitude towards these things but there is some other issue in the way. Well the purpose of apologetics is really to go from questions to more questions! So feel free to comment!

Opening up the church


I’ve talked previously about how we are trying to do for churches what facebook is trying to do for the world. One idea I want to investigate into is how we can open up the church in the same way. The important words that I want to investigate into here is that I want to dilute the control of the church whilst maintain authority. Like everything else, we want to do this through experimentation and case studies so that this view is encouraged and not forced.

Here is an example of how the church can possibly benefit from this using technology and a fairly controversial example – Homosexuality.

The story

I attended a church that was more conservative on the issue of homosexuality. They believe that the biblical text suggests that homosexuality is a sinful act that ought not be practised. Regardless of your personal opinion on the matter I think this is a clear example of where authority is important. The pulpit is not supposed to be a place for random arbitrary opinions, it is not like the comments section of a newspaper. Authority is not about control but it is about trust. If someone is in a position of authority in the church they can be challenged in the same way that the Apostle Peter was challenged by Paul over the issue of eating with gentiles. However, someone in authority is trusted to treat their position with respect and know that people trust them. So in this conservative church, whenever someone in authority preached about homosexuality and the bible, it tended to be negative. I think this is right. I think you can disagree with that whole church and suggest reasons why homosexuality is o.k. But for the church that has made its stance it makes sense for the preachers to “tow the party line”.

However, one person from the church told me that they were proud that they had never let a gay person in their house. Now this person wasn’t particularly horrible and with all the controversy and media attention I personally think it understandable how this person reached their position. Unfortunately, this is not the position the church would want to encourage (this is important, what is interesting here is not that I agree or disagree, or really what you the reader thinks, it is interesting because even this church would not agree with their attitude). But isn’t this to be expected if homosexuality is talked about in a negative light all the time? Even saying “They are sinners but we should love them” isn’t a positive attitude to have to an actual person (It can be but isn’t inherently in that sentence).

Also at this church was someone who worked in the fashion industry. Many of this guy’s colleagues were gay. In a conservative church environment it was interesting hearing this guy’s opinion on the topic of homosexuality. It was essentially that he quite liked his gay colleagues and specifically it was much easier being a Christian in this work environment compared to say a London banking job heavily involved with alcohol and macho-ism. What is interesting here is by speaking to this friend I could get an insight into his attitude towards a bunch of people. His statements were neither agreeing nor disagreeing with all the controversial issues of homosexuality. They weren’t statements of doctrine on gay bishops nor attitudes towards policy regarding gay marriages. They were simply one human being’s attitude towards another and I think these attitudes are invaluable. (Both of them, the more homophobic christian brother and the more accepting, they are both part of the church here).

Now, if you disagree with the authority in this case. (The doctrine of homosexuality this church excepts) then this story won’t go far.  You would still have to go through the normal channels of arguing about doctrine, campaigning in church communities, writing articles, etc. However, this story highlights something I think is important. The reality is that you can leave authority exactly where it is. Good Doctrine will help but it will not ultimately change your attitude. Understanding that Racism is wrong and that all people are created in God’s eyes will not fully stop you crossing the road when you see a hooded black teenager. The reality is you need to interact with people, you need to spend time with gay people or black people to truly influence your attitude to them.

Authority can stay where it is. We need something more, we need something from the Christians who aren’t necessarily in authority. This is what impacts the church today anyway and will continue to. We need to encourage this and help people connect with it and in doing so we will open up control. If I am able to connect with more people in the church on an issue such as racism or homosexuality, then the person in the pulpit will still have authority, but now less control over exactly what I think. Fortunately for us the church already has a method of this, anglicans like to call it “the peace”.

On-line testimonies – blogs

Now the important thing about this company is that we are not creating new churches. We are merely facilitating and encouraging the good things that are already there. In the church life we already have something that moves complete control from the leaders of the church but allows the leader authority – that is testimony. If at a baptism someone stands up and explains their testimony and they tell you something scripture told them, it is normal in the church to enjoy this whilst not believing this person to be an authority on the subject. Similarly when Christian books are read about people’s lives they are read in a different manner to a book of theology or doctrine. In fact one way of wording “testimonies” is just “getting to know the impact of God on the lives of Christians around you” and probably the church would have benefited from the two people in my story just sitting down and chatting about their lives. This is great.

However, how do you personally meet up and get to know about the lives of everyone? Even if your church only has 50-100 people let alone 900 it gets difficult. Some churches have tried having “testimony” sections in the service for maybe 10 minutes where christians in the church just tell stories about what God has done in their lives that week. This is quite cool but is also daunting and sometimes there are particular stories you just don’t care about.

So a simple way to do this is to use blogs! If we could get a church of say 100 people and manage to get every person to blog maybe once a year. That is 100 awesome testimonies about their lives and God that I would have access to. Secondly, I had a friend who wanted to go into fashion design and another who wanted to become a model. How cool would it have been if they had known there was an old, experienced Christian working in that industry in their own church they could have spoken to? So here are some conclusions from this:

  • Fellowship. We can all read blogs of well-written Christians online and using wordpress.com! The tribes on-line is about connecting the thoughts and eventually the people within the church to each other.
  • Accesibility We need to develop ways to make it incredibly easy for anyone to blog. We could try a bunch of things, intergrating blogs with e-mail, automatically giving blogs to everyone who signs up, have pieces of paper that people can write out and submit like they might do anyway if they were going to give their testimony during a service.  We don’t need an army of regular bloggers, but we want as many individual people blogging. Its not the number of articles but the number of people that provide diversity.
  • Relevance – We then need to develop clever methods of making it really easy to connect people. WordPress.com does this tremendously well. Depending on my categories and tags I can sometimes get total strangers reading this, we need to find out how to do this within the church. Maybe my fashion friend would have tagged his post? Then maybe other modelling friends would have tagged their profile with being interested in fashion and things would have popped up?
  • Importance – We need to test and investigate this with case studies. We need to find real life solutions to real life problems and examples of them rather then the more theoretical post I’ve written today. Once we have these stories of how the web actually did connect the fashion designers to those in the industry and how that went, then we will be able to show the church why blogging just once or twice in your life time is worthwhile.
  • Same Authority – diluted control – These blogs will never be the authoritative opinion of the leadership in the church. This does not dilute authority. But the blogs will remove some control. The leader of the church will have less control over the total image of the church because the blogs will represent the genuine thoughts of the individuals that make up that church. Some will be scared of this. Well with our software if you’re scared you just turn off “multiple blogs” and it is fine! But hopefully once our wiki gets going we will have a lot of stories of why it is worth the risk.

Remember the artilleryman


In the book by HG Wells, War of the Worlds, the world is conquered by Martians with superior scientific technology that then proceed to eat humans. The protagonist, whilst wandering around fairly aimlessly stumbles across an artilleryman who he had met earlier. This man is full of hope and vision and explains his solution to the Martians. He is going to get a few people to dig a tunnel that will then extend to a series of caverns where humans could live. He talks about how families could move down there to repopulate humankind, how they would have cities and then conduct research to build their own heat rays and in the future rise up against the Martians.

However, it turns out that in a week of digging this artilleryman had dug a hole that would have taken the protagonist less than a day to dig. The man is so happy with his work he starts drinking and playing cards. This guy is a visionary. He is also an idiot with no sense of what it takes to carry out the vision. I am the artilleryman!

I like ideas and I like talking about all the fantastic ways the church can move to better itself and the world. I’m usually quite good at telling other people about my ideas and getting them briefly excited and sometimes I’m even right about these things. However, it is important to realise my limitations. I’m a dreamer and I live in the clouds, I need to surround myself with people who live on planet earth.

This means 2 things. Firstly, it means it is incredibly important that I look to my peers, Andrew and Rob. Unfortunately, Rob is a bit of a dreamer too, just a slightly more grounded dreamer. Andrew Belcher on the other hand is a very practical person. Secondly it means that we as a team of people need to look to the wider community. Dreamers don’t last long in the open source community. These communities are described as “Do-ocracies” where people who DO things have power and therefore the projects that succeed, succeed because someone has taken the time to actually write code. It doesn’t matter how wonderful the idea sounds nor how much support it has. If no one does anything nothing is done! This is one reason why I am trying to talk my idea down a bit. I’m blogging about it but not announcing it in the real world until we have something of substance to talk about.

A dream of the future church

There is an area where my skills are important. The reality is that we are going to be working with “the church” as in the whole global entity and the church is simply not perfect. In fact there are many Christians who lament about how it is sometimes harder to work with other Christians then non-Christians. Personally I have found it at times difficult to navigate the labyrinth of politics and culture in the church and sometimes I leave with a sour taste in my mouth.

The important thing, I think, is this. This company’s aim is not just to create a product and certainly not just to make money or just to save the church money. It is to influence the church. I believe that, in the same way Facebook and Google are trying to encourage a more open society and attacking some aspects of privacy. I believe the church will benefit from being more open. Sometimes we may be right about these things and sometimes we may be wrong. What is important is that although we are trying to influence the church for the better (and ultimately serve the church). We will NOT be making the church “Good”. That is not our job, the guy who has the job (God) is on it and we know he WILL succeed. This means that throughout our involvement with the church some of it will be difficult, some people in the church might not be very nice and sometimes we might get hurt or burnt out.

But this is just what the Gospel is all about! The beauty is that God uses terrible people to make the world awesome with it. The beauty of that is that it means I can take part in God’s plan for the world. When we do work with the tribes online, it might be sad that the church isn’t perfect. But how awesome will it be if God uses even the 3 of us to be a tiny part of his plan to totally complete his church?

The vision and the dream is that our interactions with the church will be joyful!

The different phases of the tribes online


After a conversation with Rob Mumford, I thought I’d post a kind of action plan of how our company will grow. This is just a rough plan of attack at the different areas of the church world we’ll go for. I’ll organise this into Phases and see if my words stick! In an interview with the creator of Drupal, Dries at Drupal Radar talked about the purpose of Content Management Systems like Drupal is to eradicate the need for web developers. There used to be a time when a web developer needed to hand-code everything in HTML, Drupal means for many websites you don’t need a developer. With Drupal Gardens they aim to remove the need of a designer! We’re following in this theme and so this is our plan to eradicate the need for church website developers! (sort of!)

  • Phase 1 – Aim for individual churches – In order to end them we have to join them. We’ll spend some time acting like a normal (ish) church website developer. In this phase, we will target a few individual churches and build a website for them in a much more intimate manner. We’re looking for churches who want a website that is either free or low cost but where they will spend quite a bit of time working with us. During this phase we will work with experimental ideas to solve problems and test it with members of that church and we’ll build case studies and train them in using the website. Finally we’ll build the website using the software that we will eventually release and support. By the end we’ll have a Drupal distribution for Churches, with documentation of how to use the website technically and practically (church models) and the tools for others to help.
  • Phase 2- Aim for Church Website Developers – To eradicate the need for church website developers we will need church website developers to help us! Once we have a basic Church install profile to work on and release we’ll try and advertise to others to get people using and maybe even developing for it. We’ll try and attract the more geeky members of the Church community to help us. This phase will mainly take place on Drupal.org. Dropcrm.org is an example of how we’d do this. We’ll have a website with a small forum and some pages detailing our aims but actually all of this will point to a project page and group on drupal.org. We’ll work with all of Drupal’s issues queues, File repositories and discussion tools. At this stage there will hopefully be no difference between the tribes online people and just random developers.
  • Phase 3- Aim for the Church Innovators – On our website we’ll build a wiki as I’ve said before. The hope is to build a website to bring innovators from the church to us. These innovators just need to have ideas, they won’t need technical skills but will just have things about the church they want changed and the ideas of how to change it. This phase can only happen when the wiki is built and there are a pool of developers to implement their ideas. One big thing we’ll need from these people is a set of case studies of problems in communication in their church. Eventually this work will be used to collaboratively produce books and resources.
  • Phase 4 – The masses – This is the phase that brings in money! Once we have software that churches are actually using, once problems are actually being solved and once we have the software to host hundreds if not thousands of websites similarly to http://www.drupalgardens.com, we’ll release the company side of things. We’ll start advertising at places such as the Christian Resource Exhibition and attract loads of churches to host on our servers. Here, the aim is to make it so a church can sign up on our site, and be up and running with almost no involvement with us (The church website developers will be ending here) so that each extra church doesn’t cost much extra to host. The aim is to cover our huge fixed costs. We’ll probably need about 300 churches before we can even begin to be sustainable.
  • Phase 5- We aim for rival church hosting companies and the world! – At this stage our tasks can be complete. Our software will be so open anyone could steal it. If our main company makes enough money to fund at least 4 full-time developers, it will be successful.  Our hope is the invisible hand of the market will not let us continue making money for long, eventually others will want some! So if we get good enough, if our software is as awesome as it needs to be. We’ll attract rival church website hosting companies to download and use all our software totally for free! However, it will be in their best interest to keep the software alive if we’re around or maybe keep us (the individual people) alive if they use our talent! So although we’ll compete in the market of church website hosting, we’ll collaborate on the software as we’ll all benefit from making the software great. At this point we can take over the world! (At least the church website world). The church will have a piece of software that allows them to make website whilst giving them the extra dynamic features for free and a huge number of people to support them.

I’ve written stuff like this before and probably I’ll continue. My hope is to build a company structure that people other then myself can understand. (Work away from me rob and andrew phoning each other all the time… even if its fun to hear about Andrew’s olive woes)

What I am to! [update] and church website hosting


Things have totally changed again. I have now applied to do a Masters of Enterprise in Business at the Manchester school of business. The online material is not that great at describing it. It is a research Masters where Masters of Enterprise is the prefix, MEnt (similar to Mphys or Bsc). The degree itself is a generic business degree so the core modules will help me learn things such as marketing, setting up a business and dealing with finance. I then get to pick courses in my “Subject Area” which will be something vaguely IT based that I pick. I have to produce 2 dissertations, one of them focuses on the business side of my idea and the other on the subject side of my idea. I don’t exactly know what this means! However I think it will be something like a report on the marketability of the idea whilst the subject dissertation outlines some area of research into the idea itself.

The hope is then once I have finished this degree I’ll be able to bring back the knowledge into The Tribes Online. We’re working on things to some degree this year but it means when Rob is out of university we can start building things properly! Also I hope to meet lots of interesting people on this course to help me get connected to Entrepreneurs in Manchester. Unfortunately this also means I’m dropping back to work at Heidmar throughout the holidays.

Aegir and our hosting plans

We’ve been playing around with a development server in my house. For the less technically minded readers you may not find this interesting but I think its well cool! I’ve spent about 6 months getting this set up (and failing) due to my lack of understanding how linux works but we’ve finally set up a box with Aegir installed. It is an incredibly cool piece of software that allows us to host loads of drupal sites using one interface. If I want to set up a new church website, instead of going through all the normal drupal settings I just click “create new site” enter a few settings and everything is set up automatically. So here are some things I’m excited about:

  • Our business model will require us to have a huge number of customers (over 300) before we make enough money to sustain us at all, let alone grow. Therefore we need to make sure all our variable costs are as low as possible. We need to make sure that the process of Church is interest => Church site set up and money paid is as small as possible. This will allow us to divert our resources into building the fantastic fixed cost that is the free product.
  • Drupal Gardens is an awesome example of a company doing what we want to do for churches. (However, the creator of Drupal works for this company so its not something we’ll be able to do easily alone! They are giving away free sites during beta so you can get a free one now and try it out. Its very easy).
  • Drush – Aegir works with drush. This allows us to administer drupal sites through a Command Line Interface (CLI). Hopefully it means we won’t need to administer any ftp accounts. All modules and install profiles can be downloaded using drush and using SSH to remotely access the command line.
  • Drupal Projects- If we sign up for a Drupal project on drupal.org we’ll be able to do pretty much all of our development on that website. They offer everything we need, issue queues, groups to discuss ideas, a file repository so people can work on things remotely and submit patches. This means our development process will probably be able to happen entirely online. As a company we’ll discuss most our things on the issue queue and all the code will be submitted to a repository, and then automatically pulled from the repository to our server where our customers will benefit from it.

Why is this cool?

This means we can work with an entirely open development workflow. Yes, we will be a software company aiming to make money but even the bleeding edge stuff we’ll be working on will be downloadable. All our servers that make us money will use that code using tools that are available to everyone, we are literally just pulling an install profile from an online server. Anyone could do this. This means it will be almost as easy for another church to get involved in the development of our software as it is for us to get involved! (also it will be easy to steal everything we do :P).

What is stopping us?

In order for this to work, me andrew and rob need to stop using our mouths. Unfortunately the voice and the brain is a very inefficient collaboration tool. Every conversation I memorise is locked in the minds of the original people who had it and cannot easily be shared. Every time we meet up, skype or talk over the phone we are dis-empowering future collaborators. The thing is, we like talking, its really fun. Recently I found out that Andrew was sad because his olives went mouldy. Things like that are what bring people together and we as a company need also be friends for it to work. But things that make us friends hurt us as a open-source company because they make it harder for others to get involved.

This will just have to be something we work on and try to do well. I do not plan to have this problem solved right away. But in a years time I hope we are part of the way and in 2 years time if we are still deciding software issues over the phone I will have failed.